California Woman Thought She Had Covid-19. She Actually Had Typhus From a Rat

California Woman Thought She Had Covid-19. She Actually Had Typhus From a Rat
A rat in a pipe. (Photo: AFP, Getty Images)

A California neighbourhood seems to have had a series of encounters with the now-rare disease typhus. According to local media reports, at least two people in Monrovia, California recently caught typhus after handling dead rats, presumably through the infected fleas they carried. Thankfully, typhus is easily treatable with antibiotics.

Typhus is actually a name given to three different bacterial diseases, all spread through a different insect or arachnid. With better sanitation, pest control, and the availability of antibiotics, typhus of any kind has become rare in the United States. One form is called epidemic typhus (spread by body lice), which routinely caused large outbreaks of illness and death during wartime and other periods of human misery.

But the most common form to still occasionally happen here is flea-borne typhus, caused by the bacteria Rickettsia typhi. Fleas get infected by biting infected hosts, while humans get infected when we scratch contaminated flea poop into the bites they give us or otherwise get flea debris into openings like our eyes and mouths.

Earlier this week, local outlet KTLA-TV Channel 5 reported that Monrovia resident Margaret Holzmann contracted typhus recently. Holzmann had been experiencing fever, headache, and fatigue, which led her to suspect she had covid-19. But her test came back negative, and she continued to feel ill for the next few weeks. Finally, she went back to the doctor, who asked if she had recently come into contact with wild animals, which made her remember that she had come across and disposed of a dead rat.

Following her diagnosis of typhus, Holzmann recounted her story on the Nextdoor app — the social media platform centered around local neighbourhoods — and learned that she wasn’t the only person with a similar problem in her area.

“Two blocks over, [a neighbour] says her grandfather got it around the same time I did and [it was] also, same thing: disposing of a dead rat on their property,” Holzmann told KTLA-TV.

Gizmodo has reached out to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which oversees Monrovia, to see if these cases have caught their attention. Typhus, however, is not a nationally notifiable disease in the U.S., meaning that doctors and health departments aren’t obligated to document or track every suspected case.

On the face of it, though, there’s nothing too unusual about seeing flea-borne typhus in California. The disease is largely confined to tropical areas, but Los Angeles dealt with a small outbreak in 2018, with at least 20 residents contracting it that year, up from the typical one to five cases reported annually in the area.

Flea-borne typhus is typically mild and often goes away on its own, even without antibiotic treatment. But prompt treatment can speed up recovery and help prevent rare complications like organ damage. Holzmann, for her part, hopes that her story can serve as a cautionary tale to stay away from dead animals.

“If you see something in your yard, call someone who can dispose of it safely and don’t try to do it yourself,” Holzmann told KTLA-TV.